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Why We Need Polymaths In An Age Of Fake News

23/02/2017 16:03

Fake news, alternative facts, pure rubbish - whatever you call it, the era of post-truth is thriving after Brexit in the UK and The Donald in the States, and you and I are helpless in its wake. At least that's what it sometimes feels like. Don't be fooled. Breaking out of our filter bubbles and returning to our inclination for wide-ranging curiosity - in short, remembering that those who aren't restricted by a single point of view are best-equipped to spot misinformation - means that today, it pays to be a polymath: that is, well-versed enough in a spread of topics to speak fluently about them, while not necessarily an expert in any one thing.

Yet there's a great irony here. Even though the internet has made knowledge more accessible than ever, the very same technological forces are holding us back.

A lot of this comes back to the filter bubble. By now, most of us are familiar with the damage it can cause. If you're perpetually fed with what you like, you lose contact with the real world. And the more you encounter the same opinions, the worse it gets. Before long it becomes next to impossible to escape the confines of your own views, social norms and interests. In fact, if the term "monomath" exists, it needs an updated definition: narrow-mindedness has become a direct result of the skewed way we consume information.

But while we're aware of the need to break out of our echo chambers, few of us know how to do so. One reason we struggle is because it's not our fault in the first place. Separating different interests into silos has been entrenched in our society for years. As far back as 1959, novelist and scientist C.P. Snow famously warned of the danger of the growing diversion between the sciences and the humanities in his lecture, "The Two Cultures". Snow was onto something: we still gain nothing by creating dividing lines, and polarisation can breed misunderstanding.

Society continues to create the obstacles that can prevent us from broadening our horizons. And it's not just affecting the way we consume information, it's also affecting opportunity. In a world where polymathic studies aren't encouraged, gender stereotyping can be disastrous. Take the woeful lack of women in technology - because the digital revolution made tech cool, but only for boys. A lack of variation is seeping into Silicon Valley too, as the same white, male, unexciting philosophy starts to become engrained.

This uniformity kills creativity. In adland, my own neck of the woods, I see people coming up with the same ideas again and again, simply because all they look at is adverts - their own professional filter bubble. But to come up with a genuinely original idea, you need to be diving into topics that are completely alien to you, and taking inspiration from totally different places and muses, so they can fuse together and create something new.

Ultimately, social media is only intensifying an already broken system.

At least out in the real world you don't encounter the same things every day: life is a random generation of beautiful, unexpected moments and discoveries. It's no coincidence that the algorithms that power our experience of social media aren't equipped with a level of randomness to balance things out. The data our social media activity creates, through our likes, location settings and weakness for bitesized information, is tremendously lucrative. It's God's gift to advertisers and the precise reason why Facebook and Google have a developed an unshakeable duopoly over the industry.

But what these algorithms help sustain is an atmosphere where narrow-mindedness and fudging of the facts can thrive. The ascendency of easily digestible snippets of information is the enemy of reasoned, well-articulated debate. It prevents people from really getting to the heart of an issue, and because it discourages us from taking the time to understand another point of view, it means discussions can quickly descend into shouting matches.

That's why tools like Blendle, which showcase strong journalism regardless of political bent, will become increasingly essential. Just because I'm a Remainer through and through, doesn't mean I shouldn't be exposed to a well-articulated case for the Leave camp. Insatiable curiosity is a crucial part of broadening our influences, and it should be nurtured, but that attitude only goes so far when so much of what surrounds us is working the other way.

I'm by no means an advocate of "switching off". I believe that technology is, more often than not, a force for good. But the problem of diversifying our thinking has become more complicated than taking what we read with a pinch of salt. Fake news isn't actually a new phenomenon; it's been around for as long as news itself. We need a major cultural shift to neutralise the deluge of misinformation that our siloed society helps to sustain. And though there are barriers in our way, we shouldn't let this stop us striving to be multiskilled, open-minded people. Polymaths are essential. They're the building blocks of a more tolerant, open society.

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